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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
Richard Wright starts his autobiography with an incident that occurred when he was four years old. He is confined to his room, as his granny is sick in bed. Full of restless energy and tired of spending his time within the house, he hits upon the idea of setting the curtains on fire. Thus playing with the matchstick and the curtains, he sets the house on fire. Scared of the consequences of his act, he hides himself in a chimney. His father pulls him out and his mother gives him a thrashing. He has nightmares when he is asked to rest in bed after his motherís brutal punishment. The scene of fire continues to haunt him, even days after the event.
As a four-year old, his reactions to his surroundings are spontaneous. Like any child, he loves freedom and wants to enjoy life. He resents his fatherís authority and restrictions. Thus one day, when his father asks him to get rid of the cat who is making noise, he takes his father seriously and kills the cat by strangling the animal. He feels victorious by taking revenge on his father, but when his mother asks him to bury the dead animal, he is filled with remorse.
Richard feels the need for food as much as he feels the need to express his heart-felt desires. After his father leaves home for good, there is no one to provide for food. For days, they have very little to eat. Richard craves for food but remains hungry. Then his mother takes a job as a cook to support all of them. He is made to run errands and do work at home. He feels afraid to encounter the older boys who challenge him, but soon gets over his fear. Sometimes, he visits the house of the White family for whom his mother works. He envies them for their status and their right to take good food. Left alone at home with his mother at work, he gets into the habit of loitering with other boys and peeping into a saloon nearby. One day, a black customer forces him to enter the saloon and even makes him drink. A man also teaches him to mouth lewd words to the females present in the saloon. Thus, he becomes a drunkard at the age of six and his mother has to shoulder the responsibility of reforming him.
Richard learns to read after he stealthily browses through the books of school children. His curiosity for knowledge increases and he starts questioning his mother about a number of things. One day, while his mother is out at work, the coal man arrives to deliver the goods. Richard gives him the money but does not ask for the change. The coal man chastises him and teaches him the numbers. Thus Richard learns not only the alphabet but also the numbers.
Awareness of his color and the autocratic ways of the White man comes, after Richard hears about the harsh treatment handed out by the Whites to the blacks. He satisfies his curiosity by asking his mother numerous questions about the races. His schooling starts at Howard when he is much older than the other boys. However, he picks up more bad words than good from the boys at school. When he exhibits this awful knowledge to his neighbors, he earns the wrath of his mother.
Mrs. Wright takes Richard to a Sunday school, after she becomes a devout member of the church. She also takes him to the court to seek justice from her husband. However, they get nothing from Mr. Wright. When it becomes impossible for her to support the children, she sends them to a Charitable Home. Richard dislikes everything about the Home, including its warden. He runs away from it, but he is brought back. Later, he returns home to his mother. Mrs. Wright takes him to meet her husband to demand maintenance from him. Mr. Wright refuses to give them any money. Richard hates his father for making their life miserable. Years later, when he meets his father, there is no love lost between them and he views his father as a stranger.
The opening chapter relates the incidents from the early childhood of Richard Wright. The fire accident and the cat episode highlight the restless energy and sensitive nature of Richard. An intelligent and precocious child, Richard craves for attention and freedom. When these are denied to him, he gets angry and turns antagonistic towards those who deny him his rights. In the opening scene, as Richard is confined within a room and refrained from making noise, he feels miserable. He remembers that "All morning my mother had been scolding me, telling me to keep still, warning me that I must make no noise. And I was angry, fretful and impatient." And in anger and frustration, he hits upon the idea of setting the curtains on fire to see them go up in flames. However, after the house is ablaze, he realizes his mistake. More than anything, he is afraid of punishment. In spite of his efforts to escape punishment, his mother finds him and gives him a ruthless beating. His nightmares can be seen as a psychological reaction to his motherís beating. This punishment has a long-term impression on Richard as a person. The fact that he survives this harsh punishment even though he is so young, gives him a special ability, the ability to rise above things or conditions that most humans would consider as beyond their capacity. His motherís punishment therefore has just the opposite effect of what she wanted.
The cat episode is an outcome of his anger towards his father. He had always seen his father fretting and fuming and giving orders. He hated his father for his autocratic ways and insensitive nature. So when his father asks the children to get rid of the cat in order to let him have a peaceful sleep, Richard decides to teach his father a lesson. He ties a noose round the poor animalís neck and strangles it mercilessly to death. Later, when his father scolds him for his cruelty, he throws the blame on his parent who had misguided him. By killing the cat, he thus, takes revenge on his father. It is as though he is trying to say that, if his father is bad then he can be worse. However, when his mother arouses his conscience and makes him bury the dead animal, he is filled with remorse.
Richard is a highly sensitive child who gets aroused by his surroundings. Thus "Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moment of living slowly revealed their coded meaning" to him. He is stirred by the movement of nature and is compelled to react spontaneously. The poet in him gets aroused. Thus he gives a series of reactions to his surroundings starting with the words, "There was ---" to express his impulses and feelings sincerely.
This chapter also reveals his initiation into the racist world. After he hears people talking about a Black boy being beaten by a White man, his curiosity gets aroused and he questions his mother about it. At that juncture, he is unable to grasp the gravity of the situation. However, he reveals his independent spirit when he tells his mother that he would not allow others to beat him.
Richardís desire to read makes him decipher words and numbers before he enters school. His thirst for knowledge compels him to browse through the books of children secretly and learn the alphabets. Ironically, he learns more outside school than in the school. At school, he picks up indecent four letter words. He tries to show off this knowledge to his neighbors and therefore earns their ridicule.